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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The political power of the Internet

In the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2008, Italy scores the lowest for any Western European country in measuring its electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. In addition to the low ranking of democracy, Italy also ranks as the only original EU member country to be listed as a partly free country for press freedom, by the American non-partisan institution, Freedom House International. An investigation into why a founding member of the European Union is ranked substantially lower than the other founding members of the EU is essential to explain the link between press freedoms and a healthy and vibrant democracy.

These low rankings for democracy and political pluralism in Italy are closely related to the relationship of the media and democracy in the age of television and mass media. While Italy has been one of the first political systems to demonstrate this is a negative manner, Italy is also one of the first political systems where the use of the Internet and the social mobilization aspects of it like blogs, websites, and on-line social networks such as Facebook are being used by political forces to begin political grass root campaigns.

The recent European Parliament Elections on June 6-7 demonstrates the impact of the utilization of the Internet for political activists to challenge the traditional control of the media by the status quo political forces. An Italian example of the utilization of the Internet to mobilize political forces was the blog posting by Beppe Grillo, the most popular blogger in Italy and the seventh most popular blogger in the entire world. Before the election on 7 June, Beppe Grillo urged his readers to vote for the candidates running for the Italian Values Party. In his typical comedic approach to his political activism, Beppe Grillo urged voters on his blog to vote for Sonia Alfano and Luigi De Magistris, candidates standing under the banner of the Italia dei Valori party. When the election results came in the following day, the Italian Values Party doubled its share of votes from the previous European Elections and increased its popularity since the Italian national elections a year earlier by 3 percentage points.

The social mobilization and political activism of Beppe Grillo solely through the Internet directly contributed to this surge in popularity for the Italian Values Party. With only using the Internet and his blog, which gets an average of 300,000 visitors a day, Beppe Grillo contributed to the success of helping the candidates, Sonia Alfano and Luigi De Magistris, from the Italian Values Party.

What makes the Beppe Grillo case so interesting for political scientists studying the social mobilization aspect of the internet is that Beppe Grillo has been publicly banned from television since the late 1980s. When Beppe Grillo was a comedian back in the 1980s, he often used political satire in his public television act. After a political scandal of the secret Masonic lodge known as P2, was disclosed publicly, he was told by the RAI (Italian state television) executives not to talk about the P2 Masonic lodge. While Grillo obeyed the orders from his bosses at RAI by not talking about the scandal, as a good comedian Grillo instead improvised and used a blackboard to draw an elaborate “P2 Theorem” and the existence of it and the connection to a leading politician, Pietro Longo. In 1986 however, Grillo pushed the envelope too far when he made a joke about the Italian Prime Minister at the time, Bettino Craxi. In retaliation for the joke that Beppe Grillo made, the RAI executives were told to remove him from the air and his popular comedy show was cancelled. The removal from television in 1986 of Beppe Grillo is the equivalent of the government today installing Internet filtering software on computers, or a government blocking access to the Internet like Burma authorities did in 2008.

With the exception from one television appearance in 1993 where his appearance attracted an audience of over 16 million viewers, Mr. Grillo has not been invited back to Italian state television. His absence however has not stopped other television shows to be critical of his political discussions and attacks on the political class. Some of the most critical television shows of Beppe Grillo have been broadcast from the stations owned by Silvio Berlusconi such as Media Set 5 and the center right station public television station RAI 1, which Berlusconi and his political coalition allies have a de facto control over. Studying Beppe Grillo and his use of the Internet in Italy is a unique situation due to the fact that his social mobilization of political forces is done solely through the Internet and has had virtually no help from the other forms of mass media in Italy.

The lack of coverage by the television media in Italy has contributed to a large segment of the body politic not being aware of the grass roots political movement and the formation of the Five Star Civic Lists by Mr. Grillo. However, this has not stopped the supporters of the Five Star Civic Lists from entering at least 30 towns, including Bologna, Ancona, Ferrara, Forlì, Cesena, Reggio Emilia, Livorno, and Rivoli.

Other online activists in other countries are sometimes helped by the mass media in their countries, which enables them to become more vocal and well known. The most fascinating case aspect for Beppe Grillo is that he has been blacklisted from television since the late 1980s. Even with this blacklisting, he was able to organize and get over 500,000 people to participate in two mass rallies known as V Day and the subsequent, V2 day. This is in stark contrast to discussions of the Obama campaign in the United States in 2008 when analysts discuss the democratic candidates’ ability to use the Internet tools like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter.

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